How to Teach as an International Teacher  


Sarah Deel’s Finding My Teaching Voice reminds me of my own teaching experience. I had a hard time to find my own teaching style until I read the book The Courage to Teach by Palmer mentioned in Deel’s article. This book inspired me to teach with respect to my own voice, to honor the nature of my true self. I decided to write something about my experience as an international teacher in the USA.

I emphasize international teacher because that is how I see myself. I was shocked the first time a Virginia Tech professor in my department recommended me to teach. It was an honor to have the opportunity, but at the same time I felt quite upset because I am from a non-English speaking country and experienced a completely different learning and training system.

The first few days of my class were awful. I was afraid that the students wouldn’t respect me because I am merely a graduate student, not a professor. What’s more, I was mimicking the professor who previously taught this class. I tried to memorize and reiterate what he said when he taught. It was more like presentation, rather than teaching. In that first week’s class, I felt that I would lose my students if I did not improve my teaching.

I went to visit and observed other professors’ classes and tried to learn from them. Also, I read several books about college teaching and discussed teaching with my GTS cohort. Then I read Palmer’s book, which inspired me to be myself and to be honest about who I am. Later in the class I talked with my students about my accent and encouraged them to correct me or slow me down if I was not speaking clearly. I also began to focus more on delivering my own understanding of the subject rather than mimicking others. After this, I felt relaxed and had extra energy to motivate learning in class. In the end, the class went well. The tips I share below really helped me a lot in my teaching. You may also find them useful, especially if you are an international teacher as well.

  1. Speak Slowly. Most international teachers will have an accent to which students need time to adjust. Speaking slowly during the class helps them to understand the content, especially when you are covering the new concept or key idea.
  2. Use more words than equations. Due to different education systems, some math equations, which seem intuitive to international teachers, may not be obvious to the students. Therefore try to use more examples, graphs or tables to illustrate the idea.
  3. Less is more. “Don’t put too many ornaments on the Christmas tree.” This is a quote from Dr. Michael Ellerbrock, who won several teaching awards at VT. Don’t try to cover too much. Students will end up only remembering a few of them. Find one or two key concepts you want to cover, and then keep emphasizing this content throughout the class.

As a teacher coming from a different cultural and educational background, I am aware that there are more things I need to think about in teaching. That is why I am taking Contemporary Pedagogy. I am sure that most of you (my readers) once sat in an international teacher’s class as a student. What was your learning experience with that teacher? How do you think of their teaching? Is there anything else about them I did not mention in this blog, that you feel is important? You are more than welcome to comment on your experience to help me (and other international teachers) to improve and to help our future students to learn.

16 thoughts on “How to Teach as an International Teacher  ”

  1. Yanliang,

    Thanks for sharing this great post. I can relate to all the things that you say and I believe is really important that you are sharing your own experience with us. Also, your tips are wonderful.

    Some things I will add regarding being an international teacher are:

    1. Be very aware of cultural differences, always be careful with humor, comments, and expressions on the way you address your students. Remember that things that can be acceptable in your culture may not be acceptable in other cultures.

    2. Make sure you explain your examples in different contexts. I realized that some times I needed to explain further some of the examples I was using because some students didn’t have my same background. It will take a little extra effort but is totally worth it, sometimes students really like to hear examples from other countries/cultures.

    Again thanks for sharing!

  2. I would say that it is just great. I really liked how you have brought out some of the issues that international teaching assistants face while teaching in a US setting. Being an international student, I totally agree with the fact that the educational paradigms in which students operate here can be very different from the worldviews about education which the international GTAs come with. In such a case, it is important to know about others worldviews and adjust instruction accordingly.

    Moreover, I totally agree with the idea of telling students about where one is coming from and what one thinks about teaching and learning process. This way, it opens up a dialogue between the student and the instructor and gives both parties an opportunity to learn from the experiences of each other.

    1. Hi, Ashish, thanks for brought up the dialogue between students and instructor into the discussion. I totally agree with you. A candid conversation with students about our background starts with a candid conversation with ourselves. This authentic teaching provides more opportunity for both students and instructors to learn from each other.

  3. Thank you for sharing your awesome experience! When I was a TA for a statistic-related class, I also found the problem that I was from a different education system with my students. The thought process and even the way to convert unit were so different. However, international teachers also have their advantages. Just because their accent, they will try to utilize many other methods to help their students to learn, which may turn out to be easier for their students to understand. I was a student of a Germany teacher before. Although she had accent, her logical was super clear and her class was really easy to follow. Thus, international instructors can do a great job in teaching as long as they find out their way of teaching and communication with students.

  4. You give some wonderful comments and thoughts on how to be a good international instructor. Maybe we could go one step further! I think the best international teachers are those teachers whose students forget their nationality, accent, and cultural backgrounds. However, as international teachers or teaching assistants, we could use our backgrounds to give students more. I believe you will be an excellent international teacher!

  5. Thanks for this post. I am also a foreigner here in the US and I remember my anxiety two years ago when I had to TA for the first time. My biggest issue in the begining was that I would get extremely self-conscious of my foreign accent, which would in turn make me more nervous and I ended up speaking even faster. I think this links with this week’s topic of accepting your own nature to become a good teacher. I can try to speak slower and ennunciate better so that students are more comfortable with my accent, byst after all, I am going to have an accent, so I better don’t let it take over my entire teaching mood.

    I am also reading Palmer’s “The courage to teach”, in which he offers some helpful hints on using our identity as a tool to become better teachers. Another book that I enjoyed reading this summer is “What the best college teachers do”, by Ken Bain. It was very helpful to me to learn why some great professors are great.

    1. Thanks for recommending this book. I will definitely read it. It is always inspiring to know a group of people trying to be a better teacher despite of the challenges.

  6. Thanks, Yanliang for your input! I really appreciate your sincerity and openness to share — especially the tips! As an international student willing to teach, it is encouraging to see your reflections and your trajectory!

  7. You show the possibilities and the way ahead for people like me — it is great to see your process (in my imagination, the image for your process is: “flourishing”)!

  8. Yes, I agree with many of you. What I usually do at the beginning of a class to break the ice and to make myself comfortable is to joke about my accent. I let students know where I come from and the reason of my accent. Then I make sure that they feel comfortable to interrupt if something I am saying doesn’t make sense.

    I feel like teaching in english as a second language gives you and advantage because we tend to express ideas in different ways; we tend to use different examples to covey the same message. This edge is only beneficial to students, specially if we have group with a variety of learning styles. For instance, when I talk about biomedical procedures I try to act out what I am saying with words or use the board to draw or pull up a video to supplement my vocal limitations.

    1. Hi Bernardo, thanks for the ice break and alternative supplement suggestions. I totally agree with you. Alternative way of explanation not only beneficial to students, but also to teachers. It makes me a better communicator. The essential part of teaching is communication. If we can explain things through different ways in teaching, then we can also do that with our colleagues and co-authors.

  9. Thank you for bringing this important distinction to our attention! I am not an international student, and I truly can’t imagine the added stress of being thrown into a teaching setting within the first semester. The points you present (as well as the additional comments in Homero’s post) are important for all of us to consider who are teaching to a diverse audience.

  10. Yanliang I think I could understand you exactly, since I faced the same situation when I taught for the first time in US. Yes, you suggestions are really true. Talking slowly really helps. I too used to go to other instructor’s class to see how they taught. You nicely expressed your experience. I really liked your blog.

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